Crab Island’s Story

How one little island has experienced change and become a part of local history

To the casual observer, Crab Island is just another forested chunk of limestone dotting the surface of Lake Champlain.  A mere speck compared to its neighbor, Valcour, it is as unassuming as a leaf on a tree or a feather on a duck.  But Crab Island has a story of its own to tell.  It has witnessed the carnage of battle.  It has been subjected to the impositions of man and throughout the years has been built upon, farmed upon, lived upon, and died upon.  Crab Island’s role has been a staple in the history of Plattsburgh ever since man set foot upon its ancient shores.

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Crab Island from the Plattsburgh shore

The War of 1812 brought about the first of many changes that would take place on Crab Island.  Owned and farmed by Caleb Nichols, the island was seized in 1814 by the US government for use during the Battle of Plattsburgh, and a makeshift, tent-city style hospital was built for the purpose of removing the sick and wounded from the mainland.  The soldiers, however, were not in the hospital to sit idle.  “Anybody who could walk was put to work firing canons at British ships from the shore,” says Kristina Parker-Wingler, Battle of Plattsburgh Association museum manager. 

As the war came to a close and the blood washed into Lake Champlain, Crab Island was bestowed the task of absorbing the dead. An estimated 150 men, both British and American, were buried in a mass grave on the island after the guns went silent.  Left unmarked, the exact location of the fallen soldiers’ grave has never been determined.

“The interesting thing about the island itself is that after 1909, people began to take interest again”

Soon after the US military abandoned the island in 1814, Nichols returned to Crab Island and assessed the damage.  He even went as far as to “petition the government for damages done to his property,” says Parker-Wingler.  It is unknown whether or not Nichols actually submitted the bill, but what is known is that he lived there until his death in 1858, after which ownership of the island changed hands twice until the US government finally bought it for $500 in 1891.

In an effort to pay homage to the deceased and commemorate the Battle of Plattsburgh, a 100 foot iron flagstaff was erected on the island in 1903.  Three years later, Congress decided to turn Crab Island into a park and cut a network of trails that crisscrossed the island’s 40 acres of forest.  The following year, Congress had a caretaker’s cottage built and finally, in 1908, a granite obelisk standing nearly 50 feet high was placed on its shore. 

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A plaque that once adorned the monument on Crab Island.

Crab Island was quickly becoming the center of attention for those living near Lake Champlain, and would subsequently receive credit for its role in human affairs.  In 1908, shortly after the obelisk was erected, Sergeant Thomas P. Connolly accepted the position as caretaker of the island and moved into the cottage with his family.  “The interesting thing about the island itself is that after 1909, people began to take interest again,” says Parker-Wingler.  Crab Island did not have company for long; in 1915 the Connolly family left for reasons still unknown.

There is one resident of Crab Island that has never abandoned its host.  It has remained faithful to this day and is not showing any sign of leaving.  Some, like the US military, have seen it as a nuisance while others, like Parker-Wingler, see it as a sort of guardian angel.  “Poison ivy has really protected the island,” she says.  Referring to the same ominous vine, Plattsburgh City Clerk Keith Herkalo says, “The place is loaded with it.”  He even offers some advice—“Whatever you do, don’t go out there in a bathing suit.”

It might be a lofty honor to bestow upon a plant that most find intrusive, but perhaps Parker-Wingler has a point.  In the mid-1950’s, the US air force decided to clean up Crab Island for use as a recreational area for soldiers and their families.  The project included the creation of fire pits, clearing brush to make space for camp sites and, most important, the removal of poison ivy.  Several techniques were employed, including cutting the plant down and burning it.  Goats, who consider the plant delectable, were even brought in, but they simply waited for winter and used the ice to escape. After spending two years trying to create their recreational Eden, the military abandoned the project, and the island, for good. 

“Poison Ivy has really protected the island”

By the time 1965 rolled around, Crab Island was deemed “surplus by the military and surplus by the state,” says Herkalo.  Considered extra baggage, the land was reverted back to private ownership and left alone again until, in 1985, “It was finally declared a national asset and turned over (to the state) as a state park,” says Herkalo. 

Today, Crab Island is well maintained by a few volunteers.  One of them is Roger Harwood, who takes his lawn tractor out to the island in a motor boat so he can mow around the monument every 2 or 3 weeks.  Harwood also helped clear the original trail system put there 100 years ago, and still maintains it to this day.  “Now that it’s been cleaned up, people can go out there for picnics. I see boats anchored there, and there are always cross-country ski tracks in the winter,” says Harwood.

Harwood has a sincere respect for the island and the soldiers whose bodies will forever be a part of it, and doesn’t think the exact location of the grave should be determined.  “The monument is enough,” Harwood says.  Despite his feeling that the grave should remain unmarked, Harwood does believe that there should be more on the island to educate visitors.  To this end, he has put signs and pictures of past caretakers around the island, creating a more interpretive feel. 

Even though Crab Island is now owned and run by the state, volunteers like Harwood have been imperative to its upkeep.  Without them, the rambling vines of the poison ivy will consume the island and the forest will swallow any hint of human presence.  When Harwood says “I won’t always be able to do what I do,” he is speaking of the human need to reminisce, to glorify what we deem important and to make it available for future generations.  To Crab Island, our decisions are ultimately superfluous.  It will always remain as it is, silent and resilient to the encroachment of man, and framed by mountains while bathing in the brisk waters of Lake Champlain.  

Have you ever been to Crab Island?